Monday, December 21, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

The Film: The Princess and the Frog

The Voices: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, Keith David, etc.

The Dealio: In Disney's latest addition to the princess folio, we travel back to '30s New Orleans, with a combo of newfangled art and old school primitive. The princess of the title is Tiana, the daughter of hard-working, working class workers-mom is a seamstress who 'does for' a rich-rich-rich family in the Vieux Carree, concocting luscious confections in pink for the 'princess' of a daughter. The daughter's apparent sole goal in life being to marry a prince, Tiana is a more hard-headed type. The sort of Molly Brown, pull myself up by the bootstraps heroine we all love: hardworking, unaffected, generous and self-starting. Her dream? To open a restaurant with her Pa. Fast forward a few years to see whose dreams have travelled closer to fulfillment (Tiana's, and all through her own sweat and toil), and, wouldn't you know it? A real, live (although stone-poor) prince appears on the scene just in the nick of...well, you know. He is looking for a princess with wads of moolah- and may have found her in the bubble brained Charlotte. Wait just a minute, though: this is a Disney flim, and the path need be littered with broken prmises, broken dreams and broken down characters who rise to the occasion. Splendidly.
And, really what would a Disney flick be without treachery, betrayal, some snappy-sappy tunes, a wish- or several- upon a star, a popular character meeting an untimely death to advance the plot? For me, the movie began to lose traction as we went along, detouring into areas of discrimination, deceit and pernicious envy. So- when this movie was good, it was very, very much so. But there were bushels of cliches, mixed in with so many 'dark aspects', (including some hard line black magic stuff that had the kiddies in the theatre fretting: spectres rising from the grave and one character being eaten whole by a scary, animated evil mask). At other times, I found the story draggy and the music very trite and forced. And have you ever noticed how the loss of one or both parents has become a mandatory for Disney movies? Supwiddat?

The Grading Session: 3.71 pengies out of 5. If you are going to bring me down, I will return the favor. Oh, and don't be in such a rush to slap on a 'happy ending' just to finish up in 90 minutes. As Tim Gunn would say, 'OK, people, you have a lot to do here; make it work!' Genius, that man. Tim- go speak with the filmies in Anaheim. Pronto.

Lessons Learned: Kissing a frog is no guarantee you're gonna wind up with a prince. Also, wishing upon a star is nice, if traditional. Falling in love with a star: heart-wringingly moving.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

why can't we just play rugby and all get along?

The Film: Invictus

The Actors: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, etc

The Dealio: Based on the book 'Playing With The Enemy', this story plays, too, somewhat fast and loose with the facts, but ultimately tells a pretty compelling story, while glossing over the 'rough patches' of the actual events. Here is the skeleton: as one of his first acts as the first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela becomes mesmerised by the parallels between the way the 2 disparate groups in South African society relate to their rugby team and the struggle between the white minority and the black majority. He sees that enabling the two groups to work together is the first priority in making South Africa the bright, shining example of democratic tolerance. And, for reasons unexplored in this film, focuses in on the rugby team as a vehicle to bring about this reconciliation, and enhance the ability for the two to work together towards some-any!- sort of common goal.
Although the film seems to imply that the entire process was without much more than a slight hiccup from inspiration to success, there are some truly moving moments, some wonderful portrayals of historical personages. Prendie read the book, and said that it was phenomenal, and well worth looking into (which). It also offers more details about the evolution of the team, the process and the people involved in making this happen.

The Grading Session: 4.23 pengies out of 5. A very earnest effort, some grand, hard work and we always love it when yo get to see pictures of the actual peeps portrayed in the flick. But, oddly, scant reference to why, if Invictus meant so much to the ultimate victory, there was so little of it seen as being used as an inspirational tool, by the rugby-ers.

Lessons Learned: Watching the rebirth of a country, the coming together of diametrically opposed sides and the forging of a new, solid whole from those halves, is seldom as easy a process as portrayed on big or little screen. Rather, it is more like the making of sausage or your son skateboarding down the railings of a 4 level shopping centre in Japan: there are certain things that are simply too painful to witness in the unedited versions.

Have You Heard About The Morgans?

The Film: Have You Heard About The Morgans?

The Suspects: Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Eliot, Mary Steenburgen, Wilford Brimley

The Dealio: An estranged NYC couple witness a mob assassination and are put into protective custody in Wyoming. Hilarity ensues. NOT.

The Grading Session: .75 pengies out of 5.0 pengies, mostly due to the creative use of Sam, Mary and Wilford. Not a cliche goes unforce-fed. There is ZERO chem between the leads and I think we have gone to this particular well 3 times too many with the creaky fish-out-of-water-who-will-by-movie's-end-become-the-most-ardent-fans-of-the-new-locale (and beloved of the town-folks. How did they ever manage without them?). Have we heard about the Morgans? Yup, but only for about 45 minutes, which seems to be the ultimate limits of our tolerance for films we just. don't. like.

Lessons Learned: We resent being force-fed crap and pap and told it is hilarious, engaging and entertaining. I want my money and time back!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Everybody's Fine

The Film: Everybody's Fine

The Faces: Robert NeNiro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell

The Dealio: DeNiro's David is still in mourning for his six months' gone spouse. She was, apparently, one helluva listener, and seemingly, is required to take on a similar silently receptive role posthumously. Witness the many scenes of David speaking to his dead wife as he goes about his day, making his plans. One gets the notion that this is a familiar role for him; he is comfortable getting no reply; he never has before. Only a readily listening ear. It is David who is the talker.
He is a character at once familiar-(unable to connect with his sons and daughters-except in a 'strongly encouraging way to make the most of their gifts')-and exotic (taking such inordinate pride in the work from which he retired-making plastic coating for telephone wires- that he challenges every stranger he meets into a game of 'you have been staring at my work for miles. Can you guess what it was?'). He is also under some sort of medical cloud which has him longing to retranslate every relationship in the family into a fairy-tale style picture of all of them, sitting around a Christmas table. At the same time, his family seems to be devoting its extensive energies into keeping him as far away from them as possible.
Early on, even the most casual observer of human nature will figure out the family history and dynamic, the real nature of the current problems and how this family will deal with it- and each other- ifthe formal sit-down ever becomes fact. But the trip there is full of moments large and small that make you smile at their very ordinary, everyday-ed-ness. The, just as you are getting used to the very ordinary truth of this family, in the next instant, you would be surprised to find yourself find yourself hunting for a tissue and vowing silently to stay closer to your own family, to be more patient and to remember them as younger versions, before time and life took their individual tolls.

The Grading Session: 4.48 pengies out of 5. There was the very cool note of showcasing telephone wires, while hearing the voices of two of David's now-adult children, passing along important messages. There is also a slant on the 'offspring-all-grown-up-in-reality-but-Dad-still sees-them-as-children' device. Both these are mostly good. Some other pieces (like having one of David's eldest, his namesake, and, reportedly 'the one you were hardest on', as an 8 year old telling off his Dad, and then leading the other kids in laughing at him. Uncalled for, a bit hysterical in tone, and this made me feel very beleaguered and angry, myself.

Lessons Learned: Unlike the song 'Fathers and Sons' by Cat Stevens' (back when he was Cat Stevens), it is never too late to make things right, if love is on the line. And, no, you don't really have to go to make things right. Stay. instead, and follow the Beatles' advice instead: we can work it out.
Enough musical philosophy for you today?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

In A Word: fantastic

The Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Talent: Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Bill Murray, Jason Schwarztman, Willem Defoe, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson, Mario Batali, A Coupla Coppolas, etc.

The Dealio: From the subversive children's book by Roald Dahl, this is the story of Foxy and his wife, his distressingly unathletic son, Ash, their cousin, Kristofferson (athletic AND spiritual, plus quite a babe-magnet) and the entire woodland menagerie of your usual: lawyers, real estateagents, chefs, accountants, football coaches, doctors, like I said. The usual. Into the mix throw three of the meanest, ugliest farmers in the area. This is, at once, part caper, part romance, part father-son scratchiness, part cautionary tale (sometimes, an obsession, allowed to run to completion, is as destructive to everyone else it touches as it is corrosive and lethal to the possessor of that obsession).

The Grading Session: 5 pengies out of 5. The art of the thing was wizard, the voice characterisations, masterful. The story was ambitious, but did not shirk any of the elements. And the soundtrack was so spot on, as well (Beach Boys and Bluegrass!). It is so hard for me to believe what was accomplished without mega-budget special effects.

Lessons Learned: Two: beagles are, apparently, fools for blueberries, and puffed cotton, oft-times colored, makes a perfectly respectable stand-in for smoke. See it, see it, see it, do.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

New Grading Session Scoring Device

Hi, all one or two of you who follow along with the adventures of blogging books and movies with me. I am given to understand that it is difficult to leave a comment, and hope I have fixed that- but am not overwhelmingly confident. Just hope you are enjoying what you read- agree or not.
I am going to make one very minute-but essentially blog-altering change: from now on, I will be scoring with penguins (or, more commonly, 'pengies') not stars. The range will be from 0 pengies (hardly worth getting out of bed to see on TV, let alone paying to see it in theatre), to 5 pengies (the ultimate movie-going experience, and well worth seeing multiple times, so you may as well go on and buy my humble opinion).
Hope you hang with me and also hope to hear from you!


The Flick: 2012

The Participants: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson, Oliver Platt, and a cast- at least digitally- of millions.

The Dealio: End of days, based on a Mayan calendar-related threat and some junk science.

The Grading Session: 0.17 stars out of 5. Let me be perfectly honest here: I had a full-blown panic attack in the course of this movie. Which took me out of the theatre more times than I am proud of (which). However, in my defense, I have to ask "How many times can you be exposed to the catastrophic, wholesale destruction of millions, graphic scenes of California disappearing into the ocean, of people being mangled, drowned, obliterated, crushed, set on fire, blown apart, etc before you are totally in the realm of sensory overload. And the biggest rip to us (SPOILER ALERT!) was the scene where the ark couldn't close a door- thereby threatening every cussed thaang on the ark with drowning, simply because 'something bad will happen unless we clear out the jam first'. Something worse than frickin' armegeddon? Close the flippin' door, people! I'm just saying; things are already as bad as they can be! Close the bloomin' door NOW. Also- again, obligatory SPOILER ALERT!- were these arks supposed to float around forever, loaded with animals and humans, and only a finite measure of support infrastructure? Where was the food going to come from? I suspect cannibalism would have reared its ugly head in record time. I nominate Oliver Platt's character to become the first animal nom on his ark. And I am okay with this.

Lessons Learned: No more disaster movies for me.

The Blind Side

The Film: The Blind Side

The Actors: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, etc.

The Dealio: Based on a true story (oh, man, how many times have I heard that one?), this tale starts by setting the scene with affluent Ole Miss boosters, McGraw and Bullock, complete with perfect son and daughter, meeting a young man who attends the same cradle-to-college-style academy. They are well-off, he is disadvantaged- a product of The Projects, living by his own wits and the grudging charity of tenuous relatives. 'Big Mike' sleeps in a laundromat, picks up food after athletic events in the gym, and is barely scraping by at school because his head is in the clouds and he is 'scary looking' to others- including teachers. He is big... and brooding, never smiling and largely mute. A chance meeting after a game leads Bullock and McGraw's characters to take him in. Next, it is a short hop to their sponsorship of him, the hiring of a tutor (Bates, who believes in this kid from the git-go)to bring him along, intellectually, and the discovery, through some sort of inventory test (could someone tell me the name of this one? I would love to take this one myself!), which clearly indicates that young Michael abounds in 'protective instincts'. Would he walk into a biker bar to defend his family? Probably so.
It seems that football is the perfect place to kill two birds with one...well, you know. He can shelter under the protective wing of his coach- placing him in an ideal situation to develop some sort of skill which would make him appealing to colleges. That, and, more importantly, he also begins to experience, perhaps for the very first time, socialisation in an other-than-gun-toting, drug-using setting. The question is, will there be a happy ending for Michael? Oh, come on, you know the answer to this one!

The Grading Session: 4.29 stars out of 5. There are those who will protest that this film is the worst sort of pap- the hubris of these folks to feel that only the affluent whites can save the underprivileged youngster from an uncertain life on the streets. However, I choose not to go down that rabbit hole. I prefer to enjoy the over-the-credits scenes from the real story, featuring the real people, and let any glossiness that appeared to smooth the way pass on by. Why? Well, I spoze it's because I prefer to believe in the pure goodness of people's hearts and intentions. Each one of us needs to seize a moment, a situation, an opportunity to make a difference large or small. These folks, clearly, got that and saw an opportunity with Michael. And I believe that Michael saw one, too: the unique opportunity to make a better life for himself, and then to pay it forward. The fact that this is a true story of someone - one little person- who stepped up when she saw something was wrong, and did something about it-well, that gives me both hope and happiness. If it is possible for one individual to make such a big difference, it is possible for many to make huge changes. Let's see how much we can do when we flex our muscles and act, instead of waiting for someone else to get the job done.

Lessons Learned: It's an oldie but a goodie: you can't judge a book by its cover. And I am not speaking just about Michael Oher.

Pirate Radio

The Film: Pirate Radio

The Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Kenneth Branaugh, Emma Thompson, etc.

The Dealio: In 1960's England, it was not so much a case of England Swings. It was more a case of sequestering potentially polluting rock to one inconveniently timed hour per day. This was done, of course, for only the purest of motives: for the protection of the impressionable children, you understand. Against this restrictive background, several adventurous, hardy and rule-shattering folks banded together to move the music into international waters,where- it was thought- they could operate without censorship. Inevitably, some of the politicians got exercised enough by these impudent, in-your-face 'pirates' to seek legal- and not quite legal- ways to kill the music.
That's the set-up, and this movie takes you inside one such operation, run by the aristocratic liberal played by Bill Nighy (possibly the most effortless scene-stealer in show biz today). The music is peppy, effervescent and, well, groovy, baby. Which, to my mind, makes the soundtrack The. Best. Ever. The folks responsible for providing it are an odd group comprised of the usual free spirits, but also some fairly cipher-ish types who wander in and out once in a while, causing you, the viewer, and even characters in the story to say, 'Oy! Who are you, then?' There is great good humor, rakish misbehavior and loads of stereotypes. But there is never any back story on anyone except Rhys Ifans' character (not the most interesting, interestingly enough. I could have learned more about Bill Nighy's founder of Pirate Radio's motivation and story). More, please? Might I have a skosh more?

The Grading Session: 4.16 stars out of 5. More joy, more meat, more back story. But don't change a thing about the music. It doth truly swing like a pendulum do.

Lessons Learned: Sometimes music fuels such fierce emotions that people do rash, dangerous and noble things in the defense of their muse. And, BTW, when has the censorship of music (or books, for that matter) ever resulted in anything more than a united backlash of support for free expression?

Monday, November 23, 2009

This Was It

The Film: This Is It!

The Contributors: Michael Jackson et al.

The Dealio: My son, Nick, said it best when we were discussing this movie/concert the other day: Michael has been off our radars for quite some time. But, I was in the mood for something a little...gentler than some of the films we've been seeing lately, so I went by myself. Well, welcome back, MJ...and, sadly, good-bye. Was suddenly reminded of what a remarkable, creative hyphenate MJ was. Did I notice that, when he was wearing the orange pants with the 'Tin Man' jacket his voice was not quite as strong as it had once been? Sure. Did I observe that, overwhelmingly, everyone on set kowtowed to him? Decidedly. Did I feel he was quite a world class micro-manager? Most assuredly. Did he spin out a quality project? Oh, yeah.
Michael had a wonderous, gigantic talent, and, for that alone, I respect this chance to glance behind the scenes, on what would have been- had even one of the concerts been played before his death- the gold standard by which all others would be judged for years to come. Even the raw-edged nature of what was simply a series of rehearsals, was absolutely fascinating. The young talents he attracted were relentless in their efforts to dig deeper and push harder than even they thought they could- and MJ egged them on in this pursuit of excellence. Although the film was not without (at times, gaping) holes, this was a joyous celebration of talent, history and innovation at the hands of a truly inspired individual. I liked so much the fact that people in the audience were totally plugged into the electric atmosphere, singing along, clapping, even cheering at a few points. It is just too bad that this tour never saw like of...well, night and stadium/arena/performance hall.

The Grading Session: 3.86 stars out of 5. Gotta ding him for the sycophantic tenor of the support staff and director.

Lessons Learned: It is better to burn out than fade away...if you are Michael Jackson. Oh, and don't be surprised if you see a huge, luxe $1000 set of this concert-prep vid being released in time for a major holiday in the next 12 months.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Box

The Film: The Box

The Perpetrators: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, among others.

The Dealio: Short and sweet: folks are offered obscene amounts of money by a shady character, to push a button. When they do, someone-someone they don't know- dies. The family agrees, and I can't really say more about this pic b/c I split right after the scene where Cameron's teacher gives in to a creepy, teeneaged boy's request to 'see ' her injured foot. In English class. That kid is in ecstasy, and I felt the need for a shower, broiling hot and with lashes of exfoliating soap.

The Grading Session: Zip out of 5 stars. They couldn't even get the Virginia accents right. To be fair, perhaps the rest of the film was Oscar-worthy. But...why do I not believe this to be so?

Lessons Learned: Cameron:recognise your limits, as an actress. If you are good at what you do in the arena of action/romance....stick with that. Until something irresistible, something of taste, scope and promise comes along. Then- go for it. This. Thing. Was. Not. That.

Men Who Stare At Goats

The Flick: Men Who Stare At Goats

The Actors: Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Jeff Bridges, and, oh, yeah, that fella from those Ocean's movies.

The Dealio: Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Based on a story too wackadoodle to be made up, MWSAG takes us inside, on the ground level, of a government project, top secret and so far out of the box, that there is no box to be seen anywhere. The goal? To create a New Earth Army with Jedi Knights as soldiers, instead of the standard GI GI. All this is seen and told through the eyes of an outsider, journalist Ewan MacGregor, a sad sack, forlorn guy from a small fish-wrappin' sort of paper, whose wife leaves him for their editor. Now, rudderless and filled with despair, the journalist finds himself scrambling after the most top-secret of all secret, and being guided by a passionate follower of a madman. Along the way, there are riffs on everything from Apocalypse Now to Star Wars (well, duh!) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With goats. Fainting goats.
You may think that this is a story about 'getting the story' and winning back some semblance of validation and affirmation of the glories of taking the road less travelled-albeit, through a desert. To me, it was more about finding the remnants of creativity, imagination and essential 'self-stuff' that may have taken refuge away from your everyday life, deep, deep inside you. Can you actually make goats die by simply looking at them? Can you thought-process yourself through walls? Really? That's beside the point. Which, to me is this: do you believe that you can? 'S all I'm sayin'.

The Grading Session: 4.3 stars out of 5. Great casting, metered lunacy, tricky harvesting from other films and a su-weet ending that says nothing. And everything.

Lessons Learned: What is the difference between being gullible and being willing to, at least momentarily, suspend disbelief?

A Christmas Carol

The Film: A Christmas Carol

The Usual Suspects: Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey and, well, you know. Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth and Gary Oldman.

The Dealio: Well, I think you know the story, so all that remains is to let you know what I thought about this version. First of all, surprisingly, this was rated PG-13. And for a reason: some of the scenes were intense. I've read- you, too?- something along the lines of 'if you chose Jim Carrey to star in this and made him the major focus, why did you then rein him in?' Didn't notice much reining in, ak-shully. But did notice some areas which needed a skosh more editing. I apologise, I know I harp on this with boring frequency. But, here, we had waaaaaaaayyyyyy too long a relationship with 'mini-Scrooge' and the horses chasing him through every street, alley and culvert in London Town. I get it: the animation of the horses was awesome and harkened back to Darby O'Gill and the Little People (introducing Sean Connery!), a flick that scared the sleep out of me for one solid month. But, even though it may have taken the animators months and months to create the artwork, was it really necessary to make us, the unsuspecting audience, sit through this gag in real time?
It was highly interesting to note the comments of two little boys sitting behind us. One -with a very young-sounding voice- asked his companion (brother?) 'Is it all going to be scary like this?' And his bro/compadre whispering back, 'No. It's OK, though. I'm scared, too.' So sweet, and it swept me back decades.
And of course, the message comes through loud and clear: carry the holidays in your heart...all year long.'
The Grading Session: 4 stars out of 5. I am a huge fan of the voice talent. But. What is up with those EYES!? I have watched this studio for years- every since the Polar Express freaked me out with the woogie eyes and turned what should have been a sweet, simple message into a haunting, cautionary tale. Unintentionally. After all these years, and all the tech developments...I should think they would have figured out some way to mitigate the zombie eyes.
Lessons Learned: Out of the mouths of babes: first, Tiny Tim, who saw goodness and promise in everything around him, rather than concentrating only on the bad things that threatened to hem him in. But, also, from the young lads in the theater who were so earnest in their viewing that they disappeared into the film- and kept each other brave. Now, that's a message for ya!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Beautiful Boy

The Book: Beautiful Boy
The Writer: David Sheff
The Dealio: Pure and simple:this is a non-fiction account of a descent into Hell. Don't know how else to describe it. The author is a pretty well-known journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, Wired, the New York Times Sunday magazine, etcetera. Here, he is writing about his oldest son, the beautiful boy in question, named Nic. Who was smart and funny and multi-talented and athletic and full of promise. And also an alcoholic and addict. His poison of choice was meth, and the spiral began when he was about 14 years old. This is a book recommended by a coworker/friend of mine who said, 'It is utterly fascinating and utterly nerve-wracking in turns.' So, I decided to take a chance. At times, I was wondering if I should have (had my head examined). But Mr Sheff is a terrific, humane writer with his finger on the pulse of his audience. By this, I mean, he leads you to the very brink of horror, suffering and despair, then refuses to throw you over that cliff. Instead, he offers you breathing room and a chance to recover when he moves on to information about addiction and rehab, the music scene, life in Marin (where you may be ostracised from the neighborhood picnic for bringing full-on meat hot dogs, rather than the tofu sort), the healing process, Alanon and movies (are you surprised to hear that he hated Sideways?). When I couldn't stand it a moment longer, I felt compelled to 'google' David and Nic and see their actual faces, to read about how they are doing now. To sort of touch base with them. BTW- Nic, also, has a book, 'Tweak', which tells more personally, his side of the story).
The Grading Session: 4.73 stars out of 5; towards the end, I had such an embarrassing feeling of retreading already covered mileage, and, truly, I do feel David is such a talented writer, there is simply no excuse for that. But I split hairs. This is a tough book to read, but it is also a glimpse into such an alien (I hope!) world, that I was glad I read (and survived) read it. And am glad to blog about it.
Lessons Learned: Not original, but here goes: 'You didn't cause it, you can't control it and you can't cure it.' This is a hard one to learn, but sometimes, love, sacrifice, caring, helping, hoping and praying are not enough. And I can not believe I actually just wrote those words.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

The Film: Where The Wild Things Are

The Genre: Fantasy/Drama

The Talent:Max Record, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo (barely), and the vocal talents of James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose and Forrest Whitaker-among others.

The Dealio: Well, you know, right? This was one of my favorite- and, I think, my sons' favorite- childhood books. There was just enough of the subversive and trend-bucking in it to really appeal to me...and them, I think. So, I was really looking forward to the movie version. Saw the sneaks, the trailers, the teasers, and I was overjoyed with the beauty and fitness of this merge of the written word and the artwork with the moving images. SPOILERS AHEAD! PLEASE BEWARE:
So, pardon me if I say that the first 15 minutes of the movie were really alarming. Across the board. First, I was really bothered by the tempestuous nature and raw anger and emotion of what happened in the first few scenes. I did not recall any of this from the book. But, that's okay. The larger crime for me came from the total waste of two newish elements in the beginning of the film: the half-poached role Ruffalo was given(a wonderful actor, but here, just a paper cutout with nothing to contribute. Why?) and the addition of a sister who just didn't get- or dig- Max at all (again, why was this necessary?) There is more than enough going on in this story that those two late-stage add-ons just never made any sense for me.
I despised the scenes where Max hopped on the table and screamed at his mother, then bit her. I was horrified when he ran out the door (not in the book; there, he was locked in his room and it was quite clear that this journey would be woven out of whole cloth from Max's imagination). As a mom, the thought of my child disappearing through the door, into the night, and staying gone for hours, is just too frightening to contemplate, and I was nauseated by the coupling of Karen O's cacophony of screams, ululations and howls that accompanied Max's tirades.
And then, long before he got to the land where the wild things are, I suddenly got it (well, I arrived at an understanding that seemed to make sense to me. I am sure Maurice Sendak would say- a la Marshall MacLuhan in Annie Hall 'No, you didn't get it at all. You are completely wrong'. But so be it. I accept that).
To me what I was seeing, in the wild things, especially, was a personification of Max's inner self: full of selfishness, self-centeredness, angst, turmoil and fears. Destructive and distrustful and yet, eager to please and a bit deceitful. Tender-skinned and not-very-brave, but, at bottom, wanting to do right by those closest to him. That was when I began to relax and taken in the art, the craft and the message of the film. But it was a near thing; I came very close to walking out until that last piece fell into place for me.
I especially related to the wild things individual personalities; each of them seemed to have one dominant trait, which, taken together, would form one complete child: Catherine O'Hara's Eeyore-like fatalist, full of gloom and doom, but also, quite passive-aggressive. James Gandolfini's Carol, lashing out at everyone and everything when hurt- because that is his most primitive response to everything. He is an all-or-nothing type and doomed to be misunderstood. Haven't we all felt like that at one time or another? It reminded me of what childhood- and on into teenagerism- is all about: everything is as important as everything else. Because we haven't lived enough life to be able to put things into perspective and realise that a casual glance is sometimes just that, and not a threat or challenge at all. If the underlying theme to this phase of life is: lights, cameras, action and drama, drama, drama, then Spike Jonze managed to capture that theme exactly.

The Grading Session: 3.98 stars out of 5. Not sure I would call this a kids' movie, as the book was clearly a kids' book. But it was an impressive, expressive one. I do believe that, had you not read the book, you would not have the same reaction I had (or if you are not an admittedly tender mom with 'lost kids' issues, perhaps). I really did not appreciate most of the soundtrack- especially the bits I described above. True, they were extremely apt and underscored the action on screen. Therein lay the problem for me. If what is going on, onscreen, is troubling to you, the viewer, then a perfectly matched soundtrack would emphasise this quality. And it did. But there are lovely moments throughout, too, and so, I will strive to be reasonable about the whole.
There were children of all ages in the theatre with me. Some really enjoyed the movie, some seemed bored by it. Some acted scared. But I really do think parents need to prep for a show like this by reading a wider variety of reviews. I was taking myself to the show, so I didn't prep with any reading of reviews. Thought I knew the story, was interested in how it was translated into a film. End of prep. I would definitely approach the task differently if the deal involved children of a certain age, temperament and imagination.

Lessons Learned: A child's imagination is a strange, alien and complicated realm. All sorts of ideas and emotions are filtered through their specific life-experiences. By which I mean: how they interpret what life has brought them so far. It's probably important to keep that in mind when exposing children to situations, illustrations and experiences for the first time. Sometimes, that old raincoat in the closet really does look like a big, old, scary clown. They process such things in their own personal way and create their unique life view from these imaginations. So- let's be careful out there about the Wild Things we evoke.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Law-Abiding Citizen

The Film: Law-Abiding Citizen
Genre: Torture Porn
Abettors: Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx, etc
The Dealio: When Butler's family is killed, and he, himself, nearly so, he does what any righteous person with the means to do so, wants: plans revenge. I am all for revenge and caper movies- and especially combining revenge and caper, ( see 'Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less', book or TV mini-series, for the template on how it should be done: cooly, with great style, detail and intricate planning, and a tiny twist at the end to make you say, "Ahhhhh! Did not see that coming, but, nonetheless, 'ahhhhh'.") This was not that. At all. To begin with, much too much adoringly intent dwelling on the most unspeakable images possible. Secondly: oh, come on now. I am as willing as the next person to give the film a bye on suspension of belief. But, unless this is a fantasy film -and I mean, an intentional fantasy film-it really is customary to offer at least the illusion of plausibility. Thirdly- and this is vital for someone who likes a really scorching caper/revenge flick: don't turn our hero into an irredeemable, living, breathing incarnation of evil and expect me to care any more. But that's just me.
The Grading Session: Yuck out of 5 stars.
Lessons Learned: As the accountants would say:'Less expenditure on blood and things that go bang, more on writing and coherence.' You can't buy my affection with gore and mayhem. To do that, you have to add in at least the minimum of thoughtful plot and diligent acting. Done widdat guy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What part of rated 'R' did you not get?

The Film: Zombieland
The Talent: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin
The Dealio:So, OK, I know you all read my rantique about people bringing young'uns into age-inappropriate movies. So, you gotta know I was doing a slow boil when people began to arrive with under 4 kiddage. Quick review, folks: the movie is called Zombieland; it is rated 'R'; children, even the under 4 set, have great imaginations. What am I, talkin' to myself over here?
Whew! Much better now.
Prendie kept checking for a 'stem' at the back of my neck to see if a pod person (or, a zombie? BWAAAHAHAHAHA!) had taken over my earthly shell. I am the most chicken movie-goer ever. Granted. I'll give you that. But something about this one seemed to call out to me.So, I went to see it by myself and I loved it- especially an unforeseeable cameo (don't worry, I won't spoil the surprise for you). Is it violent? Is it gory? Well, duh! (remind me: what's the name of this film, again? Yeah). Is it smart and funny as well? You know it is! I was especially taken with some of the zombi-fied people; esp the stripper. She doesn't want your money, honey, I'll tell you that for nothing. I adored Columbus' top rules for survival in a zombie-prevalent world. Just exactly the type of thing I would do. When in doubt, start by setting up guidelines. Or am I wrong? Of course, I did get a little tired of the repeated car thefts by 1/2 of the 'team', but that's a minor thing to me. And I refuse to split hairs. Or skulls, even.
The Grading Session: 4 stars out of 5. Everyone, say this together (my mantra desu): "The difference between a good film and a great film is a wizard editor." With exactly the right amount of editing, this one would slide into immediate cult status...and may do so even without it.
Lessons Learned: 1) Never, ever imitate a zombie (if you aren't), 2) Do not underestimate the power of cardio in the post apocalyptic world, 3) Zombies do not speak...important safety tip here, 4) Twinkies actually DO have an expiration date.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What's 'UP!' ?

The Film: UP
The Voice Talent: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, John Ratzenberger, and others.
The Dealio: Carl is the neighborhood grouch: flinty, anti-social and fiercely solo. But, that's now...Before, quite early in the movie, we discover the real scoop on Carl: as a boy, he was the shy, but dying-to-break-free-of -his-shell half of an odd-couple sort of team. His life takes a definite turn for the 'out there' when he encounters his future: soon to be his partner in crime, best friend and the love of his life in a little tomboy named Ellie. In a nearly wordless montage of scenes, the couple's life spools out before our amused, delighted-and, OK, sometimes, pretty tear-soaked-eyes. We watch, co-conspirators, as the pair hatches the greatest most out-of-this world journey conceivable; then we sigh, helplessly, when the world intervenes with obstacles, lessons, losses and sacrifice. Will these two ever get that adventure into which they had poured so much love, attention, and planning? You begin to think, 'No!' Tears threaten again.
When Ellie dies, so does the largest part of Carl's heart. He grieves, but also feels enormous guilt: Ellie, after all, never got to have her grand adventure- and Carl never got to share in her wonder and joy. Years pass, and Carl deliberately closes off his heart and soul, simply withdrawing from anything outside his day-to-day grind. Call it life lived as the anti-adventure. After a gigantic over-reaction, he is ordered by a judge to leave the only happy home he has ever known: his and Ellie's place. Forced into a facility where he can be 'looked after', (argh!) what's a grouchy, ex-thrill-seeker to do? Simple: pull up roots- literally- and head out- at long last- on the jaunt to end all jaunts. Using balloon-power, Carl sets sail in a house full of memories and memorabilia. Plus a certain gung-ho explorer scout/ involuntary hitchhiker named Russell. Yes, there is serious action. Yes, there are creatures weird and wonderful. But mostly, there is dawning recognition of kindred spirits in both Russell and Doug the Dog. And, finally, finally, there is grace, and dreams coming through, and a surprising understanding that there are still enormous possibilities in everyday life for each of us, fictional and non-.
The Grading Session: 6+ stars out of 5. The art is phenomenal, the voice characteristations, neat, intriguing and skillful. And that tremendously moving story. So, fans? Don't forget the hanky.
This is one for the home library.
Lessons Learned: Ad it's a terrific, and terrifically important, one: sometimes, the greatest adventure in the entire world is not actually an action sequence, but, rather, the indescribable joy of living each day, well and truly loved by your very best friend.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Too many issues!

The Film: Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs
The Contributors: Jon Heder, Anna Faris, James Caan...'and a whole bunch of other people'.
The Dealio: Have to warn you: this was one of the premier book over at the HQ of the Corp P+10, lo, these many years ago. At the time, the story seemed pretty straightforward, pretty simple. Now...the film. Wow. What can I say? This film has more issues than Newsweek magazine! As I seem to recall, the story dealt with a kid with great smarts who invented a machine to produce food from the weather. Simple. Uncomplicated. Dare I say it? Fun! Now, the movie. The first 30-40 minutes streak by in a glory of 2 D splendor (yeah, yeah, yeah. I saw it in 2D. Listen, after all this summer has offered, I was 3D'd out! Soooooo-reeeeeee.). Then, all of a sudden, I became aware that something I did NOT recall from the book was creeping in. At first, I was not sure what was happening. Then, all of a sudden, I had it: there were issues: issues about greed, issues about not addressing-or even considering- global warming and the dangers of rampant messin' about with science. Obesity pandemic issues. Issues related on the inability of fathers and sons to communicate. Issues both political and non. Hey! Wait just a filigreed moment, y'all. Who-or what- just hijacked this book? Not good. Even in the theater crowd I was part of (which), I could sense an uneasiness. A desire to escape. Then I had it: the direction of the original story had been supplanted. Now, instead of a story -plain and simple- about someone discovering the really important things that make life worth living, we are delving, face-forward- into a total issue blood bath. Now we need to worry about giant, roasted chickens attacking. Now we have to rely on science to lend a helping hand- where, moments before, it was the same science, in the hands of the greedy, which started the mess in the first place. But, let's not forget, there are other issues here: nerd power, beauty discrimination, age-ism, the destructive power of absolute authority, communication breakdown and bullyism. What began life as a pretty entertaining book with lots of sweetness and fun has transformed (apologies for using that word, TJ!) go into a gigantic preach-a-thon. What's next? Mitchell is Moving as a diatribe against global warming? Pul-eez! Folks, grab the reins! Do it now.
The Grading Session: 3.82 out of 5 stars. Serious point loss for the dilution of the sense of joy and accomplishment in the original. But, suh-WEET use of voice-casting (I'm talkin' about you, Jimmy Caan, getting your bad, ol' Tony Soprano on).
Lessons Learned: It is bad to eat too much. It is bad to pigeonhole someone for the way they look. It is hard for fathers to speak to sons (well....OK, personal evidence makes me a tad unsure about this one). It is not only not true, it is absolutely evil to think that if a little is good, a lot is way better. ' Really. Who knew? Oh. Right. Pretty much everyone. Lastly: even if we don't 'get' what our kids are trying to do, if it gives them joy and doesn't result in the SWAT team permanently camped outside our's all good. This is not a bad film. Only a self-aware, co-opted one.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Weirdness!

The Film: The Informant!
The Participants: Matt Damon and a whole lot of 'B list' actors-including the Smothers Brothers! -who act their butts off, often unrecognisably, but always to excellent effect.
The Dealio: OK, spots fans, (puttin' on my Bahstin accent, however awkwardly), think we all suspected Matt Damon ('Matt Daymin! Matt Daymin!') had a pretty good sense of humor about himself and his career. Fer sher, we knew that he was capable of chameleon-like submersion into his a point of near seamless personality assumption.
Now, here comes yet another opportunity for Damon to show his ability to change it up. In The Informant!, he effortlessly assumed a role ('based on a true story') that is a near sibling of Stephen in Shattered Glass. An idiot savant who takes on much more than he bargained for, in an effort to cover his own gadumphka, but without accepting any possibility that he might, just possibly, be... what's the phrase I am looking for? Oh, right: guilty as hell.
In nearly 30 lbs of extra avoirdupois and a ridiculous toup, Damon swaggers, self-talks and schmoozes his way through meetings with the Eff-Bee-freakin'-Eye, his superiors (in every way) at ADM, his wife and assorted overseas dignitaries. What? You have a problem with that? OK, how about, instead of coming clean... another of his implausible tales? On and on it goes, and with every game of mental chicken, our 'hero' flies just a taddy bit closer to the sun. Yet no one ever calls him on his line of bull-pucky. And, here we, the audience, sit, absorbing every fabrication, and, somehow, still believing in the man, hoping something, somehow, will break free and allow him to triumph in the end.
The Grading Session: Gotta be 3.98 stars out of 5. Sorry Steven Soderberg, but you needed a better editor. I know you've heard me say this before, but an ace editor can literally transform an OK flick into an Academy Award nom. This film, while engratiating, just outstayed it's welcome by about 15 minutes. I'm just sayin'.
Lessons Learned: Only the strong- and the really sneaky, unencumbered by any sense of honesty or basic social value- can survive a Federal probe. Also- Damon can successfully pull off pretty much any role, from that of a penner of fairy tales, to a drug-addicted soldier to a math wiz to a master thief. Also: who, exactly, says crime doesn't least for the un-faint-hearted?

The Ties that Chafe, Bind...and Shelter

The Book: The Namesake
The Writer:Jhumpa Lahiri
The Dealio: With my strong preference for stories about dysfunctional families, both fictional and non-, never thought I would find myself recommending one about a family that is hyper-functional. This is the one to break that habit of mine: The Namesake introduces us to a young, extremely well-educated, but cool- perhaps emotionally distant-Ashoke, who brings his new bride, Ashima, to Cambridge, MA where he works as a professor at MIT. In winter. To a postage-stamp of an apartment. And then picks up his life much as before.
The first few chapters flash back and forth between the couple's past to present, to the woman's struggle to figure out how even the basic things work in the US, then on through their lives together. Soon children come along- including the uniquely named Gogol Ganguly, the namesake of the book's title. Through succeeding chapters, we sneak a peek into the lives of each major player, watch as generations struggle first, to adapt, then, later, to grow, to find a place where old world and new meet, clash, then learn to move along side by side, no longer irritated or challenged, but, finally, comforted and supported.
Moments of laugh-out-loud humor and gentle, awkward but genuine romance dance alongside tear-inducing episodes of friction and resistance as each person struggles to understand and enbrace the old, while asserting a separate, newer identity with the new. With the gentle patience of an orchid breeder or a miniatures' crafter, Lahiri demonstrates again and again an understanding of the urgency of both sides of this generational dissonance. The exquisite placement of two very tiny scenes involving Gogol's father's shoes-of all things!- is guaranteed to move you-perhaps even to tears, as two people, separated by more than 20 years, come to realize how important this man is, was, and is going to remain in both their lives. And it takes a gifted writer to produce such delicate treats without any self-awareness or mawkishness. There are so many genuine touches, details and such affection for each of the main characters that, by the end of the story, we truly feel we have met and known these people...or wish that we had.
The Grading Session: 5 stars out of 5. As a bonus, this book became a film- which, wonder of wonders, is absolutely authentic and true to the original story, (Although the family was inexplicably moved from MA to NY in this transition. A tiny thing, really, but...well, why?) I also recommend the movie as one of great, good spirit and touching grace.
Lessons Learned: Sure, the ties of family can chafe, bind and frustrate. But, it is so important to remember that they can also nurture, shelter and support when we need it most.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

If you prefer the real thing

The Film : The September Issue (documentary)
The Actual Divas/Divos: Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, Sienna Miller, Thakoon, Andre Leon Talley and a whole bunch of fashion-obsessed people whose names I neither know nor care about.
The Dealio: Based on the September 2007 issue of Vogue (arguably, the most 'important' magazine issue of the year, and definitely, the One guaranteed to send postal delivery personnel up into the bell tower strictly for the purpose of picking off innocent passersby. It weighs, by trad, between 7 and 10 lbs, see?), this film takes you behind the velvet curtain for a peek at what really goes into the publication of this issue.
If you saw The Devil Wears Prada, then you already know the set-up. Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep- so, yeah, Anna Wintour needs to hit her knees nightly to thank the film-making power brokers for this bit of flattering casting. I'm just saying) is Anna Wintour. Who sat directly behind Meryl during the premier of TDWP, causing this response, from MS: 'All during the movie, I was praying I wouldn't take a stiletto heel to the back of my neck!' Or words to that effect.
Yes, yes, there is insanity, chaos and wild hyperbole...but this is fashion, you know. Neither as frosty, nor as human, as portrayed by Streep, Wintour is a tiny figure who must, surely, have had some face hoist in her past. Face blank and stiff and whisping in a subdued tone, this woman is always right. If you don't believe me, ask any of the multiple toadies who appear to do 180s on their opinions at such warp-speed, one almost fears some sort of permanent damage to the brain. But, then, OK, it is fashion, so why worry about that?
Enter Grace. Just when you thought Wintour could find no one to inform her that the emperor is actually, well, naked, in walks Grace Coddington. Grace-a highly placed assistant editor, is the person who shepherds everyone through the process of bringing out this mag every month with the humor, cynicism, and total lack lack of kowtowing, you realise that you have located the sole rational center of equilibrium in this fun-house ride. Grace was a model, until an MVA put her out of that biz forever. She is the one who says, 'No. That's just wrong' or 'Reeeeeeeaaaaalllllyyyy? Hmmm. That's crap.' Or, significantly, 'She said that, eh? Well, we'll see about that one!' She simply shines forth from the assemblage of glitterati who are first to catch your eye, and quite steals the show from them all. Yes, Anna, even from you! And, oh, yeah, not to lose sleep over this- the Issue came out on deadline and weighed in respectably. Sorry postal carriers everywhere.
The Grading Session: 4.8 starts out of 5. Point 2 stars off because the music was not consistently special enough for that minim of star-age.
Lessons Learned:Multiple. First of all, who says Miranda (sorry, I meant Anna), is always right? Sometimes, it seems that people with power flex their muscle just because they can. It is vital, then, that there be a Grace Coddington in everyone's life. Here's something interesting: the average number of 'content' pages for Vogue remains a pretty consistent 100-130 pages;the remainder of the 900+ are ads, people! Ads! Next: not nearly the posh array of 'do's', shindigs and fun social events one would think. However, on the other hand, it is vastly helpful to have absolutely no social life whatever if you are in this position. So, I guess it all evens out. Lastly, whatever they are paying is not nearly enough.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

The Film: (500) Days Of Summer
The Participants: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, a quirky soundtrack.
The Dealio: Don't say you weren't warned: the movie begins with the statement 'This is not a love story.' Still, despite the clear warning, one hopes. Told with the swashbuckling insouciance of a Vegas dealer after a shot glass full of adrenalin, the story flips, wildly, between the present, the first meeting, the grinding end, throws you a coupla days in a row, just to settle you down, then hits you with a leap forward, then back into the salad days. In addition, there are split screen scenes ('reality' on one side, 'imagined' on the other), the insertion of a rouncy-bouncy s & d (song and dance. Don't make me have to stop and explain everything) that features choreography, animation and the funniest use of a post-snog ear-to-ear grin evuh. Still, interesting to note that this was billed as a chick flick; Prendie thought it did not have an unauthentic moment to it (as long as we were talking about the relationships). And that soundtrack! How about that for lagniappe?
The Grading Session: Let's see about 4. 37 stars out of 5 here. Two very appealing actors, good music, entertaining, engaging story with just enough quirks to keep you interested, and not so many you want to slap the writers for being so self-impressed.
Lessons Learned: Never assume that both halves of a couple are on exactly the same page. Or even, in the same book. And, also, how heart-breaking is it when someone who has said,basically, 'Not interested in anything permanent', goes off and, in the course of 4 weeks, winds up walking down an aisle dressed to the nines, towards someone not you? Oh, baby. That'll leave a mark.

Monday, September 21, 2009


The Film: 9
The Participants: the voices of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connolly, and many more
The Dealio: OK, so first, a little rantique (half rant, half critique): am I the only person on the face of the earth who is getting 'over' the word 'dystopia'? I mean, as a word, it's just fine. However, having never heard the word until about 15 years ago, (OK, a bit earlier, re: A Clockwork Orange. That time, it truly fit), I begin to weary of every person involved in a film which is lacking in originality, but was filmed entirely with a smudged, dirty lens, in grey, black, brown or smog-navy, giving themselves a free pass from doing any heavy lifting on the creativity end of things by smacking on the 'd word' label. As if that excuses anything (Gamer, I am staring right at you!).
Whew. Feeling much better, I am moved to continue with the film '9'. Yep, billed as 'an insightful view into a dystopian society'. Pu-leez! Briefly, the story takes us PH (post humans) on an Earth that is grey, black, brown and, also, lest we forget, smog-navy. The sole 'survivors' are a ragtag set on 9 burlap creatures having been gussied up with the tools that seem to presage their personalities and/or assignments in this new world. The old world ended when machines outsmarted their human creators, and we can see that this is a bad thing, because the quasi-human burlap thingies are the sole possessors of the remaining remnants of human emotions: bravery, kindnesses, caring, loyalty, etc. First- the art direction is sumptuous, clever and entertaining in a way that bumps right up against scary (again, this was a PG-13 film with many, many little ones under the age of 5 in attendance. But you must have read my previous rantique, no?). The story is neither particularly inventive nor revelatory, and is undeserving of the beautiful renderings of both machines and burlappies. I found myself checking my watch more and more as the movie progressed on little cats' feet. There, that's not so good, is it?
The Grading Session: 3.25 stars out of 5. Mostly for the art of the thing.
Lessons Learned: Be cautious when a film is described as being 'dystopian in theme and nature', even if the contributors are some extremely talented individuals.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

a rantique

This is along the lines of a bit of a rant. I can't help it! Every time I find myself in a movie that is animated...or, even worse, not, I am at a loss to understand how parents can bring their 2-4 year olds into a PG-13 movie. I know, I know: it is up to the parent to monitor such things, but Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince or Coraline, (crap! that one gave me nightmares!), are hardly the stuff upon which to sharpen the kiddies' film-watching teeth. This comes from a parent who willfully took her sons to see Henry V when they were 3 and 5 years old. But, in the case of a movie where a child is audible crying out to his dad, 'Daddy! Please, what is that woman doing to all those kids' eyes!?' I really do think a taddy bit of research beforehand would have been prudent...and should have been compulsory. If I sound like the censorship mafia, I do apologise. But, consider this: if you have children with great imaginations- and, having one my own self, I can surely recognise it in others of whatever age- isn't it part of your job to make sure, as much as you can, that these little ones have the opportunity to grow into their imaginations before they have to confront some pretty dire situations, and attempt to figure these things out in their own, not-yet-ready-for-prime-time-minds? I realise that I may be holding an unfair and unpopular minority stand on such things. So, let me know what you think, whether you agree with me or not.
Let the pelting with rocks and garbage begin.

Tiny but mighty

The Book: 84 Charing Cross Road
The Writer: Helene Hanff
The Dealio: Say you are a dedicated letter writer. Or maybe you just like getting letters. Or, even that you view hand-written correspondence with the intellectual curiosity of a true science, spotting the Rosetta Stone (not sure what it is, but...intrigued). Well, then 84 Charing Cross Road is just the ticket for you. This tiny (112 pages) book starts out slowly, subtly enough: a NY actress with a passion for the written word, spies an ad in a magazine for 'gently used books for sale' via mail-order. In the grip of nostalgia for those days, long gone, of 'sending away' for things, I moved quickly through the early days of the relationship between Helene and the mysterious 'FPD' of Marks and Co in London. Helene casts wide her net of requests; he, silently, courteously and efficiently (for the most part), responds by locating, then wrapping and sending the books of her dreams. Usually. She is bold, dashing and slashing with powerful word and pen. He is shy, unassuming and scholarly, taking his task- over the course of 20 + years- of tracking down and supplying the varied written, bound words as faithfully and obsessively as a code-breaker on the trail of the elusive Enigma. Through their correspondence, we learn, not only about books and authors, but about the world post World War II, issues of the day, personal highs and lows, and, most importantly, about humor and the many faces of kindness and caring, of becoming involved and getting exercised over the everyday trials and triumphs of people who will probably never meet. what if we don't ever meet the person on the other end of the paper trail? The delight is in the evolving nature of a very unique friendship. That, yeah, plus the joys of writing-and receiving- an actual letter we can take out, read, relive and take comfort from (which).
The Grading Session: 5+ stars out of 5 (there is a sequel 'The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, if you want to know what happened next). The plus is for the fact that this is non-fiction, and tells an engrossing tale in such a economic expenditure of pages. A lovely movie was made from this book in 2002, starring Ann Bancroft as Helene and Antony Hopkins as Frank Doel. Indulge, please. Then, discuss among yourselves. I'll wait.
Lessons Learned: While it is gratifying to get e mails from those we long to hear from, there is a certain clandestine thrill about marching back from the letter box with an actual communique in your hands. And, as a compulsive re-reader, I never under-estimate the pleasure of a return visit to the same. I no longer am the letter writer I once was (and do confess to feeling like the last, surviving practitioner of that lost art), I am resolved to get back into the wonderful, and personal art of creative correspondence.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From The Dysfunctional Families Files

The Book: Three Little Words
The Writer: Ashley Rhodes-Corder
The Dealio: (NOTE: This is from the audio book). This non-fiction account is one of those rare books read by the author, in which that fact actually adds to the ambiance and enjoyment of the experience. Hello, John LeCarre and Madeline L'Engle. Are you listening?!The reader is immediately plunged into the thick of things, as 2 year old Ashley, under the care (ha!) of her teenage mom and mom's twin sister, relates a typical day at the trailer where all the cool kids hang out, but Ashley is more in the nature of a mascot, and has been on self-care for some time now. Precocious and tough-thank God, because she will have to be- Ashley plays a pivotal, but recurring, role in getting her mom and her mom's boyfriend, out of scrapes with the law. ('If we are pulled over, get really noisy and whiny. Really act up' she is told over and over again). Naturally, it is not long before there are more traffic stops, and more babies, and finally forced separation from her mother by the state. Thus begins Ashley's transformation from 'ordinary kid' to property of the foster systems of several states. Throughout the many separations, and reunions (usually under the watchful eyes of social workers and lawyers, sometimes with her mother in handcuffs, sometimes while she is high or paranoid), always ending on the same note: "Don't you ever call anyone but me 'Momma'. I am the one who loves you best. And I will come and get you. Soon.'Corder tells her story with a matter-of-factness which is at once disarming and alarming. The things that children will learn to tolerate is truly terrifying. Her half brother is sometimes in the same foster home, sometimes not; he has not learned the knack of just fitting in, of gliding below the radar. But Ashley knows, almost too well. She has worked out a system, honed by heartbreak, broken promises and cruelty, for turning herself into the perfect chameleon. What is most engaging. to me about this story is the total lack of sugar-coating Ashley gives to her observations of her own behavior and reactions. In a cruel, challenging and illogical world, fraught with violence and short on happy endings, she is a true survivor, and her story is a standout.
The Grading Session: 4.999 stars out of 5. I felt compelled to shave a widget off, only because the stories involving her crises with 'the wicked witch' and the detailed retelling of this or that birthday celebrations went on just a skosh too long.
Lessons Learned: Truth absolutely is stranger than fiction. But so much more rewarding when justice is served, piping hot. NOTE: you can do an Internet search of Ashley Rhodes-Corder and see actual pictures of her and the major players in the story. And, remember, as you are reading this, the writer was less than 24 years old when she wrote it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

now this is the way it was supposed to be

The Film: Inglourious Basterds

The Peeps: Christoph Waltz, Diane Kreuger, other unknown, excellent actors and, oh, yeah, this Brad Pitt guy, cast against type.

The Dealio: Set in the midyears of WWII, QT messes with history and -a bit- with your mind, in a simple boy-meets-girl tale. Except that the girl is a chameleon with a taste for fire and irony, the boy is a nationally known, and feared, Nazi officer whose job it is to hunt down and obliterate Jewish families who have successfully gone underground and out of range for the usual methods of elimination. Add in the usual Tarentino touches: 40's featurette style fonts and spotlights, eccentric, but totally workable musical selections, violence of high and exotic varieties, and a bit of historical fact-bending. Hey, it's his story, not history, folks. If this is something that sounds really repulsive to you, you are clearly not a fan. Go see GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. However, if you have been waiting with truculence and barely concealed impatience for this thing to hit the screen, you have probably already seen this one. The smooth performances and barely-hidden glee of righting (writing?) an historical wrong, and finally bringing justice to bear, was very appealing to me. And, of course, the ever-present tongue-in-cheek attitude towards even the tiniest nuance of the tale was rivetting to witness. Question for Q: Is it actually possible that Landa (Waltz, as the aforementioned Nazi officer) was present at more places in Europe than the entire Easy Company (Just asking as a die hard fan of BOB)? Man, that guy's like the energiser bunny. But don't worry too much about what happens to him....

The Grading Session: 4.9 stars out of 5. Gonna knock 0.1 of a smidgen off for the length of the film, which I felt was unnecessary, but only because the 'card game' went on far too long. For Quentin fans, this is the banquet at the end of a very long, hard fast. Wherever will his subversive little mind prowl next?

Lessons Learned: Never underestimate the power of really motivated, inventive people bent on revenge. Oh, wait, this too: sometimes, taking off the uniform does not provide one with a free pass from the past one thought it would. Word.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Gerbils, the USN and the '60's and '70's...what's not to like

The Book: The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter
The Writer: Holly Robinson
The Pitch: Yes, she means gerbils in the literal sense. Through much of the book, this very unusual family moves from place to place as the dad- an active duty Navy officer- guides his family through a series of byzantine protocols for dealing with the naybs. Numero uno in his credo is: do not, under any circumstances, even hint at what he does for a living (I'd think the occasional show of uniforms would sort of give this away, but, maybe their neighbors were less well informed or less interested than 9/10th of America). What really is interesting about the family is what the aitch is going on in their garage(s). Hint: see the title. No mere dabbler in the subject of gerbils, DG Robinson becomes the world's foremost authority (save one) on gerbils, going on to create a series of articles on same and to set about monopolising the global gerbil-supply business. Against that setting play the highs and lows of frequent departures, of orders requiring turn-on-a-dime moves (including one to an abandoned ranch the Robinsons thought the locals called the 'Popper House'. Nope: it was called the Pauper House- but with a Downeast accent.), a sarcastic, brainy and prickly mom, Holly's adventurous, daring spirit, a dad never at a loss for the next strange plan to ensure prosperity, and a tragedy that puts some weight behind the odd 'hobby' DG has. Factor in the pains and pangs of always being the new kid...with the added bitter pill of having a notably 'weird' family (whom you view as perfectly average. Doesn't everyone's dad hide 20,000 gerbils in a series of sheds? And count toilet-paper sheets? And instruct the family that everything he does is to be considered eyes only, top secret?). Welcome to life at the Robinsons.
The Grading Session: 3.75 stars out of 5; photos included, cuz I know you are going to want to see what the real-life folks looked like.
Lessons Learned: Into each family a little weird must fall. The secret is to use all of that 'uniqueness' to shape your own, individual identity, future...and, maybe, to write a book...or a screenplay (right, Nicky P.?)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dis N Data

This is in the nature of a 'clean-up' post, and refers to one film I have already dealt with (which) and one which I have not even mentioned here before.
First things first:
I am writing in reaction to a review I saw on TV (At The Movies, but several others have raised the same issue).
The Film: Julie and Julia
The Dealio: Read the book, saw the film. Loved the film far more than the book. But, here's an interesting thing- to me, anyway- everyone is praising Meryl Streep (who is definitely praiseworthy) and lambasting Amy Adams. The descriptors I hear most often are 'whiny' and 'dramatic' and 'self-centred'. OK, folks, one more time: this is an actor, portraying a real person. Secondly, I have dipped my toes (not literally, don't worry about sanitary issues) into Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and I am here to tell you, I have felt the urge to be whiny and self centred and dramatic. These are enormously demanding and intricately choreographed undertakings, dear ones. At the end of the evening, I have been tempted to curl up in a ball on the kitchen floor and just have myself a nice, old-fashioned sob fest. So, let's give Amy a break here, OK? Besides, who could possibly compare to the incredible Streep playing the universally revered Julia C.?
OK on to the second piece of this post.
Went to see Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince with my sister, Barb. It was in 3 D and IMAX. HA! It cost us $10/per- although we used her golden tickets, that was the 'up sale' for ticket-users of that show. Then we were asked to purchase 3 D specs for $4- each. Aaaaaand, that's OK with me, as long as we would have the opportunity to actually use them for more than the opening 3.20 minute segment. I truly felt ripped off, especially as, in this particular film, there were so many opportunities to use the technology. But, nooooo. So, who exactly am I ticked off with(which)? Well, I guess it's a mixed bag, here. But, I am going to come down hard on the side of the theatres which are showing the film. I think it is unmitigated gall to call something IMAX 3 D, charge you extra for same, and then give you such a tiny piece of what might be called either 3 D or IMAX (I truly did not get that IMAX experience, either, so, maybe the theatre was not exactly set up for this?).
Whew. I am so glad to get these off my chest.
And don't worry, this is-hopefully- an aberration. Will return next time with some words on actual books and films. Until then, 'OK, people! Make it work!'

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How bad is this?

The book: Shanghai Girls

The culprit/author: Lisa See

The Deal: OK, here's the scoop: I truly enjoy See's writing, and, ok, I am used to a certain level of grim-itude, which I can usually push past (please see Snow Flower and The Secret Fan for a very harrowing description of the creation of 'lily feet'). But OMG! What happened, Lisa? SG reads like a book written by a very jaded Eeyore...if Eeyore happened to be Chinese. Not only are there bad things after bad things, followed by worse things, followed by killing off the only relatable character in the entire book (but only after dozens more have be maltreated, manipulated, abused, stricken and, then killed), but the 'heroines' of the book are totally unlikeable, in thoroughly toxic relationships, and, although the SG in question are sisters....OY! They are the most hateful sisters ever-although no actual weapons were pulled by either on either. Over and over See trumpets that they are each others' best friends, the one loving situation in their lives. And yet. Two less interesting, more selfish, self-serving and, well, let me come right out and say it, annoyingly repetitious bee-yotches I have not encountered in recent memory.

The Grading Session: F+. The only reason this book got that much out of me was that I learned some stuff that was sort of interesting-in the middle of all that garbagey, annoying-peopley, plotty nonsense- about China and the Chinese people. Which is nice.

Lessons Learned: Even a much-loved author can have a misstep. This one here? A doozy. I will not even finish reading the book- and I have less than 1 chapter to go. I would
consider a second chance for Ms See. But not right away. Maybe not for a while. A long while. AND, if it happens again....well, I am just saying: don't let this happen again.